Remington Leith from Palye Royale performs on day five of Sziget Festival 2022 in Budapest, Hungary (Photo by Didier Messens/Getty Images )

The countercultural island within conservative Hungary

A dispatch from Sziget Festival

Artillery Row

The physical architecture of Sziget Festival, Hungary’s answer to Coachella and a popular destination for young party-goers across Europe, is unintentionally quite revealing. The festival takes place every August on an island in the middle of the Danube. To get there, attendees must leave downtown Budapest and journey north on a suburban railway line, where bedazzled flower children briefly rub shoulders with bemused commuters and annoyed grandmothers. After this awkward interlude, Sziget does its best to ensure attendees don’t stray from the festival and certain tourist-friendly city precincts. The path from the closest railway station to the island is quite literally fenced off from the outside world. Once you arrive, you can take a boat back to downtown Budapest or a taxi straight to the airport. Or you can set up a tent and settle in for six days of music, drugs and debauchery. 

The festival is a postmodern refugee camp

Sziget bills itself as “the island of freedom”, and the slogan is not a bad description for a festival that briefly creates a parallel universe within Hungary, a country that has recently become a byword for conservatism. Once you step onto the island, you’re not in Kansas, or rather the Alföld, anymore.

Music is the main draw, and the festival brings together international pop acts (Justin Bieber, Dua Lipa, Tame Impala), electronic DJs and local artists. But music is only one aspect of the Sziget experience. This year, the festival featured performances to raise awareness for Ukraine, vendors selling t-shirts with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in lipstick and drag, even a European NGO centre. Among the festival sponsors were an array of multinational companies and Telex, a prominent news website known for its sceptical coverage of Orbán and Fidesz (Hungary’s ruling conservative party). Sziget’s counter-cultural aesthetics, corporate sponsorship, lefty activism and ubiquitous pride flags mark it as an outpost of Western liberalism, as surely as Roman forts or Royal Navy coaling stations delineated the boundaries of older imperial states. 

The actual festival, with its array of vendors, beer tents and packed campgrounds, is a postmodern refugee camp. Attendees live in crowded tents, wear little and produce an immense amount of trash. Energetic crowds kick up a lot of dust, and many festival-goers wear Covid masks or bandanas to keep out the gritty air. In the mediaeval era, armies would periodically shift camp to avoid outbreaks of disease and dysentery. Based on the port-a-potty situation, Sziget should consider similar arrangements for next year’s festival. 

It would be easy to suggest that Sziget, with its hippy atmosphere and hordes of out-of-towners, is hopelessly cut off from “Real Hungary”. Indeed, the festival is worlds away from the poorer, rural counties that delivered Orbán and Fidesz a decisive victory in the April parliamentary elections. It also offers an amusing contrast to another Western export, the wave of conservative intellectuals and media figures who have recently flocked to Orbán’s Budapest. 

But plenty of Hungarians attend Sziget, and those that can’t afford the increasingly-pricey tickets go to smaller festivals like Volt, Campus and Balaton Sound. This summer festival circuit embodies the aspirations and tastes of younger Hungarians who prefer liberal, cosmopolitan Budapest to small-town Hungary. They may have lost the April elections, but this cohort still has considerable sway.

In Hungary, the rift between the cosmopolitan capital and the countryside goes back generations. Budapest was famously called “the guilty city” by Admiral Horthy, an interwar autocrat who liberal Hungarians sometimes compare to Orbán. Budapest’s current mayor is a lefty former academic, and its streets and public squares are often choked with anti-Fidesz demonstrations. Such antics are rare in smaller towns and villages.

Orbán’s critics often suggest that he is on the verge of establishing (or has already built) a one-party state. This overstates the degree of control he wields over Hungarian society, perhaps because foreign reporters have a tendency to over-sample the Sziget demographic: young Hungarians who speak English, are immersed in Anglophone culture and vote for the opposition. 

Orbán is nothing if not an opportunist

The combative Hungarian prime minister has pushed Fidesz’s institutional advantages to the limit and clearly enjoys tweaking liberal sensibilities. But would Orbán ever break with the EU and install himself as prime minister for life? The festival-going younger generation are one reason why such a rupture is unlikely.

Since the fall of communism, and especially since Hungary’s accession to the EU, Hungarians have enjoyed the opportunities afforded by growth and European integration. They holiday and go to music festivals in Western Europe. Many have friends or family members who live and work abroad. Hungary benefits mightily from generous EU subsidies. Budapest, the economic and cultural centre of gravity in an otherwise conservative country, draws tourists, foreign investment and big multinationals in large part due to its cosmopolitan atmosphere.

Eastern European countries already suffer from “brain drain” as talented and ambitious young people leave for opportunities in Western Europe. At least in Hungary, the impact of these departures is mitigated by EU membership. Expat Hungarians send back remittances and return frequently to visit friends and relatives. Many move back permanently after enduring a few years at a gruelling but remunerative service sector job.

Leaving the EU, outlawing opposition parties or banning independent media would threaten this arrangement. A dramatic break with the West would prompt many young Hungarians to permanently relocate abroad and cut ties with the mother country. After the Soviets crushed the 1956 uprising in Budapest, a generation of young people fled their homes, depriving Hungary of many of its most talented and dynamic citizens. If Orbán declared himself dictator tomorrow, a similar exodus would occur — except this time, there is no superpower patron to prop up the regime. 

Orbán is nothing if not an opportunist. He courts German manufacturers, Chinese investors and American conservatives. In the summer of 2021, he was on the verge of opening a satellite campus of the Shanghai-based Fudan University in Budapest, only to back down after a dramatic public backlash. When Russia invaded Ukraine and anti-Putin sentiment was running high, Hungary joined in the EU’s unprecedented economic sanctions. Now that winter looms and Hungarians face a cost-of-living crisis, Orbán has cut deals to secure access to Russian gas. 

Orbán is a conservative politician who governs a centre-right country. He is also not a fool. He will continue to favour a political strategy that gives conservatives disproportionate influence over key Hungarian institutions, from state-run media to the universities. Critics will darkly mutter that this is a prelude to a full authoritarian takeover. In truth, the current shaky equilibrium will probably endure. Orbán can keep winning elections, but he still has to account for the festival-goers of Sziget. 

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